Thomas Lemar might be a contender for Atlético Madrid’s most disappointing signing under Diego Simeone — if it weren’t for stiff competition from Jackson Martinez, Alessio Cerci, maybe a couple others. The facade that he still might come good and those glimpses where he shows you why Atlético Madrid paid €70 million for him are just two more reasons why he gets pushed so high up the list.
Now Simeone seems fed up, too.
The manager made the strange decision to call out Lemar before the Levante game in the hope that he could free Lemar and himself from the impossibly frustrating potential purgatory in which they have been stuck since the winger joined the club.
“Facts speak better than words. Lemar is an important player who hasn’t been able to develop his game but who has characteristics that other players don’t have,” Simeone said. “Let’s hope he returns to form when he comes back from injury.
“Now, if Lemar can stay or not...we know that agents work in an exemplary way. Clubs work in terms of the needs of the clubs. But, as a footballer, every time he has been available, he’s played a lot more than he hasn’t played. His characteristics have always excited me. But he hasn’t been able to live up to expectations.”
There’s a little bit of everything in that response from Simeone. He seems to be having a go at agents and Lemar, but it might also be primarily a call to arms for the France international. Is Cholo trying to bring Lemar out of his shell for one last crack at making an impact at the club? Is he forcing the club’s hand so they make a move and sell the player in order to facilitate a striker’s arrival? It’s a call to action from Simeone for something to happen because Lemar, for too long, has been on the precipice without ever going over the edge. Anything is better than the current state of affairs.
And while Lemar wanted to stay and reportedly still wants to stay, a desire to turn things around isn’t usually a good predictor of things actually turning around.
It’s still unclear — and this is certainly not a good sign after 18 months at the club — what Lemar does for Atlético. He is an excellent dribbler but gives the ball away a criminal amount, and he doesn’t contribute with goals or assists — the World Cup winner has three and six respectively in 64 games for Atlético. Simeone says he plays him whenever and maybe more often than he should. The dividends suggest he’s right.
The coach keeps picking Lemar or at least bringing him in to games late on in search of penetration, a change of pace or divine intervention. But it rarely bears fruit. If Martínez and Cerci’s careers in Spain were murdered with a mallet, Lemar’s has been more like death by a thousand cuts. A thousand failed passes, turnovers and chances to make an impact.
In 947 minutes of action, Lemar has managed to create 0.6 expected goals and 0.8 expected assists. He pops up in scoring positions less often than Héctor Herrera, Renan Lodi and Felipe Monteiro. His chance creation doesn’t make up for his lack of goals, either. In a team screaming out for someone who can beat players — one of Lemar’s very best qualities at Monaco — he hasn’t been able to carve out a niche for himself. He’s stifled with lack of confidence, imposed by his own poor decision-making. Lose the ball, chase it, repeat.
Simeone is right when he says Lemar “has characteristics that other players don’t have.” But it’s the comment before those eight words that needs analysing. Lemar “hasn’t been able to develop his game,” which hints that the player is either resisting “Cholo-fication” or that he simply can’t, isn’t able to and probably won’t be able to. There is no player in the squad as agile as Lemar — and that includes the svelte João Félix — but Simeone, and anyone watching Atletico play, can see that Lemar seems incapable of beating players consistently or bending the game in Atlético’s favour with his will. He’s quick and technically good but too passive to be counted on.
Simeone’s style is not suited to everybody, and in a more freewheeling side Lemar could be the difference. The coach has made the first move in an effort to shake something loose. Will Lemar respond? Will a club like Arsenal or Tottenham Hotspur make a move and offer the winger a way out? That remains to be seen. But something has to give really, really soon.